By Sally Howard
In an asylum system based on institutionalised stonewalling, there's little hope for human rights - regardless of what the law says.
Eight years ago, a landmark ruling by the House of Lords in two appeal cases (Regina v Shah and Islam v Secretary of State for the Home Department) signalled an important change in Britain's interpretation of asylum law.
Not that you'd have been aware of it. Even those members of the press who normally swoop on any apparent softening of the asylum system failed to scent its import. The ruling allowed that women fleeing domestic violence in Pakistan could be granted asylum on the basis of belonging to a "particular social group" for the purposes of asylum law. By extension, members of other persecuted "social groups" could theoretically now pursue asylum in the UK.
In practice, ignorance of the implications of this ruling amongst asylum seekers (and the solicitors representing them) conspired to deaden the ruling's impact ... with one notable exception. The UK's gay human rights movement picked up on its potential to help gay men and lesbians fleeing persecution in Africa, Jamaica, the Middle East and elsewhere.
In the course of an investigation for GT magazine (my report is in the December issue), I spent an afternoon in London with a group of gay and lesbian asylum seekers. The forum was hosted by the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group (UKLGIG), a small organisation that works for access to gay and lesbian asylum seekers in detention centres and - for the few it succeeds in reaching before the two-week fast-track processing system spits them out undigested - tries to secure effective legal representation.
Brenda's story was typical. Born in Kingston (the notoriously homophobic Jamaican city where residents earlier this year held a "gay eradication day"), Brenda has already established several lives in her 42 years - time and again packing up and leaving town when her sexuality was discovered and the "punishments" (rape, beatings and the smearing of her possessions in faeces) recommenced. Brenda has been in the UK for two years, struggling on her £37-a-week voucher stipend and pursuing the asylum process to the letter. Her claim recently stumbled to an impasse with the Home Office's advice that she should return to Jamaica and "try harder not to act gay".
Another asylum seeker, 22-year-old Patricia, hailed from Cabinda province - a disputed territory in West Africa. Patricia's asylum case was also looking bleak. She had been too afraid to open up about her lesbianism when the African woman conducting her entry interview asked if she had a boyfriend or husband. During a hearing (which her legal aid solicitor failed to turn up for) the asylum board treated her early prevarication as evidence of a false claim. Terrifyingly for Patricia, the machine was preparing to deport her to Angola, a country which - in the view of Patricia and most of her fellow-Cabindans - she has never belonged to.
In another case recently encountered by UKLGIG, a Ugandan woman seeking asylum had produced documentary evidence of her lesbianism and victimisation (a standard Home Office request, but one that is often almost impossible to fulfil where African countries are concerned). The document was a notice banning her from her home village for engaging in "obscene" acts with another woman. Despite functioning as her ID in Uganda (and bearing a verifiable stamp), the document had been thrown out by the asylum board as fake because it was handwritten, rather than typed.
Russell Blakely, a solicitor working in the asylum field, speaks for many of his colleagues in describing the Home Office's modus operandi in processing all asylum cases as intellectually dishonest: "Because of the political climate, they're an agency fuelled by suspicion and denial. They approach each case with the assumption the asylum seeker is lying about the persecution they face at home. If we manage to prove they're not lying, the board will deny that any abuse comes under their frustrating, nonsensical definition of 'real' persecution."
Another charge levelled against the Home Office is that caseworkers often cite evidence from the "Asylum Policy Operation Guidance Notes" on the country in question. These notes often contain information that is wildly out-of-date or simply inaccurate. The guidance notes on Iran, for example - a country which exercises the death penalty for homosexual conduct - say that the Home Office accepts the existence of "some discrimination" against gay men and women in Iran, but not "systematic abuse".
"The Home Office is single-minded in its agenda of deterring as many people as possible from entering the country through asylum claims," Blakely told me. "The fast-track two-week system is geared up to refuse applicants and get them out of the country as fast as possible - and there's rarely any hope of compiling a reasonable case to the Home Office's bizarre parameters on this timescale. The Home Office claims a number of people achieve asylum ... ergo, the system works. The system doesn't work."
In September, the Refugee Council issued a statement highlighting the "enormous difficulties" that many asylum seekers face in an adversarial system "which seeks to 'catch them out' in a way that 'cannot be what was envisaged when the Refugee Convention was passed in 1951'."
Somewhere amid the thicket of tabloid scares and twitchy Home Office responses, human rights and fair treatment have been lost. Fearful of the asylum furore, ministers preoccupy themselves with media-friendly headcounts, happy to delegate decision-making to workers at the asylum front line who are often poorly informed and appear to be drunk on the ambition of number-crunching the asylum problem out of existence. The result is a system beset by obfuscation and poor process that dispatches genuine asylum seekers to their certain persecution.